I was lucky.
I was taught English in one of those classrooms with complete sets of A Taste of Honey, Godot, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Death of a Naturalist, Crow, Ariel and The Great Gatsby lining the walls. You can still find them, if you look.
To the left of the blackboard was a shelf from which teachers would occasionally pluck single volumes to read from or talk about. These seemed rarer, more prized items and therefore more interesting.
I vowed to take a closer look. This necessitated a)no one else being around and b)happening to find the door of the English room open.
It was near the end of term, lunchtime. It wasn’t planned. I pushed on the door. The familiar fly and smell of must. I didn’t know what I was looking for in Touchstones 5 but I did know that it was needed exploring. Something about the way the teacher held the book, treated it carefully, smoothing their hand across the top of it while we discussed its poems.
A little way in there was a short stringy-looking poem by someone called Miroslav Holub. It had a single word for a title. Before I read the poem my immediate impression was of extreme brevity, almost a coldness, with its short lines, single word sentences, and tiny stanzas, some of them verbless.
I began to shiver.
What age was I, sneaking into the English room that day? 14? 15? Not much more. Knowing nothing of love, I knew I was in the process of discovering something about myself in the poem, which seemed completely true, empty of sentiment, and quietly terrifying all at once. People talk about first kisses, first cigarettes, getting that hit, that connection, the beginning of wanting to go back for more. But it was scary too. Beautiful and bitter. As John Logan says, like the soft caving at the top of a slide.
It occurred to me to steal it.
I read it again and put it back on the shelf, in the same place. I didn’t see the poem again for years.
Two thousand cigarettes.
A hundred miles
from wall to wall.
An eternity and a half of vigils
blanker than snow.
Tons of words
old as the tracks
of a platypus in the sand.
A hundred books we didn’t write
A hundred pyramids we didn’t build.
as the beginning of the world.
Believe me when I say
it was beautiful.
Miroslav Holub, from Touchstones 5 (Hodder)